Interview with Hannah Beachler, Production Designer.
Hannah Beachler is a prolific production designer with an affinity for evocative designs and visuals. She crafts unique emotional landscapes for every story.
Beachler most recently designed for director Ryan Coogler on Marvel’s Black Panther. She previously collaborated with Coogler on: Creed, the spinoff from the Rocky film series, starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan; and Fruitvale Station, 2013’s Sundance Film Festival breakout and winner of the Prix de L’Avenir in the Un Certain Regard competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and 45 other nominations and awards. She also collaborated with director Barry Jenkins on the 2017 Best Picture Oscar-winning film, Moonlight, a coming-of-age tale that transcends traditional genre boundaries. The film was named one of the top 25 movies of the 21st century by the New York Times
Beachler designed Beyoncé’s stunning visual concept album Lemonade, for which she won the 2017 Art Director’s Guild Award for Excellence in Production Design for Awards or Special Evants and earned a 2016 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Production Design For A Variety Nonfiction Event Or Award Special. Beachler’s extensive list of collaborators includes high profile directors: Renny Harlin, Peter Hyams, Gabriele Muccino; and directors of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, Dean Cundey, ASC, Roberto Schaeffer, ASC, Michael Goi, ASC and Peter Menzies Jr., ACS.
So Hannah, how did you get involved in becoming a production designer ?
I started out working in the art department as a set dresser and eventually as a set decorator. On Cleaner, one of the projects I was working on, the director Renny Harlin said to me, “you should be a production designer, you don’t have to know where every two-by-four goes, but you do need to have a distinct vision.” Up until that point I hadn’t considered it, but about a year or so later I started pursuing production design as my craft. A friend from film school, who was producing a few small films, called me and asked if I’d be interested in designing for a couple of movies and that was that, I never looked back.
Working in the film industry can be extremely challenging, what was the biggest hurdle you faced on your way up ?
The biggest hurdle was being a woman in an industry that didn’t have a lot of women, let alone women of color in department head positions. I kept my head down and worked extremely hard and did a lot of observing, learning about as much as I possibly could.
Indeed it is still a male dominated industry. Your perseverance to succeed as a woman working in film is an inspiration to all young women in the industry today . What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable jobs you have worked on?
So far, I think Black Panther is both the most challenging and enjoyable. It’s a joy to work with Ryan Coogler…ALWAYS. He’s an awesome human being and a joy to be around! He makes me laugh all the time and we can talk about everything. It was the most challenging project because of the size and it was the first time I took on something that large, so I had some nerves going into it. You want to make sure you’re on point and the director’s vision is coming across. Marvel was a joy to work with for sure. Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso, Lou D’Esposito, and (the man with the best laugh in the world) Nate More our producer on the ground. They are all great people and they really supported us in the endeavor. But I would say everything I’ve worked on has been challenging and enjoyable in its own way, but Panther was definitely the most of both.
(Hannah talking at the Will and Jada Smith Foundation event)
What does your day-to-day consist of?
When I’m working, my day is spent with the director, in lots of meetings, and always researching, finding images, understanding the story, creating color palettes and conceptualizing. Finding the look of the film within the story is so important and requires massive research to understand the spaces and the world your building. And then more meetings, hahaha! Going from set to set checking on their progression, talking to crew about changes and set direction, going to the mill (construction and paints), working with the set decorator and props person. I also like to go to costume design and talk to the designer. And depending on the project, I meet with VFX and previs about all the FX. There are also days that I spend location scouting and research scouting, going through schedules, logistics and budgets.
What would you say is your biggest accomplishment and biggest regret?
I would say the biggest accomplishment was Moonlight, in that it was such a small budget that to be able to do what the tiny art department did on that is amazing. It was such a great crew – five people. The biggest regret… I can’t say that I have any. I realize the older I get that if any one thing in my personal life or career didn’t happen, no matter how I felt about it at the time, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have met the great people I have – some who’ve changed my life – or the people who weren’t so great that made me stronger. I can say “no regrets.”
What is your favorite thing about your job?
Going to work every day. World building and challenging myself with sometimes tough subject matters in projects. I get to travel all over the world, meeting and learning about people, delving into different cultures and ways of life. Learning, learning, learning. I love it!
What is your favorite film and why?
That’s always a tough question. I don’t know that I have one definitive favorite film. I love all types of film. I’d say my favorite films are City of God, Sexy Beast, L’Avventura, Samsara and La passion de jeanne d’arc (1928). But there are so many I love.
What makes a film stand out to you?
Story. Attention to detail from production design, cinematography, costume design and acting are important too. But mostly story.
Interview carries on below the Trailer of Beyonce’s Lemonade album film, which Hannah was the Production Designer.
Hannah your career has clearly been very successful so we would love to grab some advice for the next generation of Production Designers. If someone wants to pursue a career as a production designer, how would you recommend they go about it?
Start in the art department and work towards that goal. I think the biggest secret about doing what you want to do in any industry is understanding all aspects of it. I started as a set dresser and then moved to on-set dresser, then was a shopper for the set decorator, then was a set decorator before I decided I was ready to move to production design and that served me well. The other thing is to recognize an opportunity and take it. It may not be perfect, it may not yield a lot of money, it may have your schedule in a mess, you may be working long, thankless hours, but seize the opportunity. Be smart, work with talented people (advice my mentor Wynn Thomas – Spike Lee’s production designer – gave me) and work on things you connect with. Nothing is too small a task or beneath you, do the best you can do in every task you’re given. Shine, be a joy to be around, be you, have fun and work hard. The brass ring is there, just grab it.
What are the biggest mistakes you notice beginners making?
Expecting too much too fast. Working as an art PA on one job does not make you a production designer on the next. Listen and observe, If you’re just starting out believe that you don’t know more than the one that hired you, even if you do. In an instant-click world, know that it takes time to cultivate yourself to last in this industry. And know that reputation is everything, hold on to it and protect it with your life. It’s worth its weight in gold.
And one more snippet of advice?
Find the story that you are moved by, that you can relate too, and it will not fail you.
To find out more about the inspirational Hannah Beachler please visit her website https://www.hannahbeachlerpd.com/
Interviewed by April-Rae Hughes